Saturday, November 7, 2009

Myths and Facts about Sanskrit

Myth 1: Sanskrit is a dead language.Myth-buster: Define dead

Both the 'elite' historians of India and pseudo-Sanskritists of the West have delighted themselves in the propaganda of calling it a dead language. So much so that its a fashion to call it so, even by the educated. Is Latin dead because nobody speaks it? Sumerian and Egyptian languages are dead. Is Sanskrit dead the same way?

A 'dead' language has a few advantages:

  1. It remains in exclusivity of a few (of those believing the dead language theory).
  2. It creates a certain aura around it, of being something special, thereby making the people who know it also 'special'
  3. Ordinary folks will not attempt to learn it.
Lets travel back in time any period between 500 BC - 1600 AD and see the facts.
  1. Sanskrit remained in exclusivity of a few (Brahmins)
  2. Sanskrit was treated special, so were the Brahmins special
  3. Nobody else except Brahmins attempted to learn

So all the above were true even before this dead-language theory (except now Brahmins are replaced by historians and pseudo-Sanskritists). So was Sanskrit dead all the time? If it was dead, why there are several thousand Sanskrit works available?

Myth 2: Sanskrit is a difficult language to learn.

Define difficult

Which language is not? German has several conjugations. Mandarin and Japanese have too many lines. French has the 'r'. Fact is every language is difficult until your perspective is adjusted.

In fact, the toughest of all these languages is English. The alphabet is not phonetical; each letter is represented by different shapes (capital and small); each word should be learnt phonetically independently; the grammar does not have a analytical approach that can be universally applied and not the last -
if you do not punctuate the sentence, you practically puncture the meaning.

None of these anomalies apply to Sanskrit. There is a deep science (SikshA) behind phonetics. There are no capitals and small letters. The science of Sandhi is perfected just to facilitate natural flow of speech. It adheres to philosophy of WYLIWIR - What you listen is what you read. Once the alphabets are learnt, the words can be read without any additional references, ie there is absolutely no guess work when reading or listening. Imagine how the complexity of text-to-speech systems will be reduced. You feed the meta-data of letters + pronounciation of each letter/compound to the system. And the system can read any word without additional effort. Any word! And all those spelling-bee contests, where students cram and rote completely arbitrary spellings can be replaced by something more analytical. The grammar is very analytical and algorithmic. Every technical term in grammar is very meaningful. In fact the word grammar itself is vyAkaraNa - which is split into vi + aa + karaNa = (vi) separate + aa (analyze) + doing (karaNa), ie "separation and analysis".

We learnt English as kids, when we never questioned logic, so it seems easy. I know some of my friends who came from non-English medium (ie learnt all subjects through regional language and exposed to English only around 5th grade), who have dreaded the English exams.

Myth 3: There is no benefit from Sanskrit.

Define benefit.
Myth-annhilator: There is no action without an effect.

Monetary Benefits:

  • Pseudo-Sanskrit academicians benefit by researching ancient Sanskrit books, habitually or purportedly misunderstanding the text, write books on it and do a Sanskrit-love-hate tango after the books are published.
  • "South-asian" pundits benefit from it with their half-baked Sanskrit knowledge (just because they were born in India) and feed the above group.
  • Vedic priests benefit from it as most rituals can be done only by them and not by anybody else
Ego-boosting benefits:

  • Elitist historians benefit by not letting any academicians challenge their pet theories, also called as history.
  • Students benefit it from learning it and showing-off to their lesser intelligent mortals
  • Bloggers benefit from it by belonging to an exclusive club and making sure no one understands what they write or turned off by lengthy blogs in these days of tweeting.
There are always benefits learning a new language. Its up to the person to figure out the weight of the benefit.
Myth 4: Sanskrit is the perfect language, mother of all languages and best suited for computers.
Myth-buster: Define perfect

This is a favorite of the overzealous right-wing enthusiasts. See this picture, where Sanskrit is one corner of the Indo-european languages. Academic opinions are pretty muddled regarding the theory of PIE, most of them peddaled by funding rather than facts. Several people have claimed that Forbes has claimed that computers have claimed that Sanskrit is best for themselves. I am not sure how much of this is misquoted. What is suitable for computers is the approach that Panini took to define a natural language such as Sanskrit, as derivable from formal rules. No other natural language is buffered by such formal rules. That method is very algorithmic, not the language itself.
Myth 5: Is it Sanskrit, Samskrit, Samskrita, Sanskrita, Samskritam?
Define is it.

The British anglicized it to cool-sounding Sanskrit, just because they never learnt anything to pronounce properly, including English. The North-Indians pronounce it as Samskrit (chopping-off the final vowel, per Hindi rules). Tamilians pronounce it as Samasgridam (adding the Dravidian grammatical touch to it). Somewhere in between these are the pronounciations Sanskrita, Samskrita etc, pretty much because of being unsure how to say it.

The correct pronounciation is sanskRitam, where n is nasalized, just like 'song'. The Ri is the most problematic and misunderstood. It should be pronounced thus: Say i (ee, as in tweet) first and then slightly roll the tongue upwards to touch little bit before the teeth.


Vinay Nair said...

Very well written, explained and proved. Indeed in the same fashion as the Indian scholars used to debate - peacefully and logically.
Enjoyed reading your articles. Keep writing and enlightening more.


Vasu Srinivasan said...

@Vinay, Thanks for your comments!

Satyan said...

Finally have found someone who can pronounce 'Sanskrit' correctly. You have busted the myths and put forward the facts. I really appreciate. Keep posting stuff.

I too have written an article on such myths (weblink:

Warm regards